We’re delighted to be sharing this fascinatingly yogadorky excerpt on the wonderful world of fascia from this great book: Anatomy and Yoga: A Guide for Teachers and Students by Ellen Saltonstall. Anatomy nerds and curious yogis will love this one. We’re also excited to be hosting a giveaway—stay tuned!
Fascia: The Grand Organizing Tissue
The fascial network of the body pervades every part of us, from head to toes, from just under the skin right down to the deepest layers of the body. The texture of fascia can be thin or thick, gel-like or more solid, depending on its local function. It provides internal structure and support, force transmission and a source of sensory feedback. It separates and wraps around every organ, bone muscle and blood vessel.
Each individual muscle is composed of bundles of fibers, each separated by thin layers of fascia, called myofascia. In the lower legs, the ankle muscles are separated from each other and organized into compartments by layers of fascia, just as thin layers of fiber separate the sections of an orange. You can think of those layers of fiber as a net that both supports individual segments and also connects those segments to the greater whole. The fascial “web” is continuous throughout the body, a fact that can be overlooked when we separate structures such as muscles, bones and organs in order to identify and study them. When we understand the all-pervasiveness of fascia, we see that moving one joint or even one part of the body never happens in isolation. Every movement pulls on the fascial web that connects above, below, around and across the body in many different patterns. Anatomist and bodywork trainer Thomas Myers maps out 12 specific myofascial meridians that transmit movement and strain throughout the body. His book Anatomy Trains is an excellent resource for study. Other fascial researchers have noted different patterns of fascial mapping. Another good source is The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality, by R Louis Schultz and Rosemary Feitis. (See the Resources section for more information on these and other books on fascia.)
The sensations we feel during movement and exercise often come from the fascia, which has a more extensive sensory nerve supply than muscle tissue. In each chapter I will point out some ways that you can feel fascial connections in asana. Here’s an example.
Try this now.
- Place your legs in the wide stance for Parshvakonasana (Side Angle Pose).
- Turn your right foot out at 90 degrees. Bend that knee and lean to the side. Notice that the stretch in your inner thighs may be the most evident sensation at first.
- Now stretch your upper arm overhead alongside your ear. You would expect a shoulder stretch to come into the picture here, but due to the myofascial sheath that runs down the side of the body, when the arm goes overhead there is also a connected pull that occurs all the way down through the left ribs, hip and into the ankle and foot. It’s not just the muscles and skin that are being stretched; it is also the myofascial line that surrounds and connects each individual muscle that is being highlighted and stretched.
Another example occurs in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), a pose that stretches the entire myofascial sheath on the back of the body. Restrictions in that sheath anywhere along the line—from the back of the neck, through the spine, hips, legs and even the soles of the feet—may restrict our ability to bend forward with ease.
Try this now.
- To perform Uttanasana, stand with your feet hip-width apart and parallel, and bow forward to touch the floor. If you are stiff, bend your knees slightly to avoid excessively rounding your lower back and to help your pelvis to tilt forward. Take note of the level of freedom or restriction you feel, and in which parts of your back body.
- Stand up and apply pressure to the bottom of one foot by rolling it over a small rubber ball for a minute or more. This will evoke a release of the myofascia on the sole of your foot that will affect the entire back fascial sheath of the body, bringing you into a deeper forward bend on that side.
- Test it out, and then repeat on the other side to balance the two sides.
When we stretch for more than a brief moment, our myofascia adapts to this new longer length and retains it, rather than recoiling. It is a moldable substance like plastic (think Silly Putty clay) and will hold its shape somewhat, but will tear if stretched too fast. It also becomes more pliable with heat. This molding effect can be best achieved through steady sustained stretching with the body warm. Bodywork can also mechanically stretch the myofascia. The details of all of these properties of fascia are still unfolding in current research.
Because fascia constitutes 30 percent of a muscle’s bulk, the consistency of our fascia can be a significant factor in our overall flexibility. There are many different types of collagen with varying properties and degrees of flexibility. We are each born with a certain blend of these types of collagen. Even though our alignment and movements do make a huge difference to our flexibility in yoga, our heredity (and probably nutrition as well) will affect how easily we can touch our toes or wrap and fold ourselves into a wide range of yoga poses. Besides heredity and activity level, age is also a factor; our collagen stiffens as we age.
Although we cannot contract our fascia consciously like we can contract muscles, recent research has found that smooth muscle cells within the myofascia respond to surrounding stress by contracting. The myofascia can become chronically contracted and toughened in response to a misalignment of the skeletal structure. The body automatically braces to try to support itself, and the fascial tissue tightens in response. For instance, if you hold your hips to the right side for a pro- longed period of time, the fascia and muscles on that side will become chronically thicker and tighter than the left side in the attempt to support the weight of your pelvis, which is off-center. Even though the muscles are in a stretched position, they remain in a state of chronic contraction, which anatomist Thomas Myers calls “locked long” (known in physiotherapy as “eccentrically loaded’). Conversely, the fascia and muscles on the other side will be “locked short” (or “concentrically loaded”) and become weakened (Anatomy Trains, p. 301). In this situation, the resulting discomfort will probably be felt in the long side, but without opening the short side, we won’t find balance. Stretching the aching long side will only increase the problem.
Ideally, fascia is resilient, meaning that it can respond to different types of demand, stretching and supporting as needed. It provides dynamic support and force transmission when we are moving, so it needs movement to keep it healthy. We can maintain its resiliency (its ability to recover quickly from any strain) by doing a variety of exercises. Fascia is toned by springy movements and stretched by holding a stretch position for at least 30 to 90 seconds. For a yoga practice, this means that a continuously moving vinyasa practice plus a series of poses held longer will give the fascia the variety of stimulus that it needs. Actively loaded stretches train the fascial layers best, in comparison to passive stretch or resistance training. An actively loaded stretch is one in which the muscle being stretched is also contracting. This kind of stretch places a beneficial demand on the various types of fascia inside and around the muscle.
Being out of alignment over long periods of time can cause the fascia to become set in patterns that restrict our freedom. Thus, a frequent return to our own best possible alignment in our daily lives and in asana can help to maximize the resiliency and pliability of the fascia. It’s not that we want to arrive at a fixed position that is “correct,” but that we move in and out of a home-base position that is functionally balanced and free for our particular structure. The adventure of yoga is that we are constantly finding and redefining this goal as we practice throughout our lives.
Yogis have postulated that the fascia is the medium through which our prana (life force) flows. When the fascia is energetically balanced (not too tight or too loose, too long or too short) the pranic flow is stimulated, bringing great health to all cells of the body.
Because of the net of fascia pervading the body, we can see that the body structure is not just dependent on the shape and arrangement of bones. It is a dynamic structure in which the bones float in a continuous, supportive and mobile web of soft tissue. Because that web provides both stretchability (i.e., it is tensile) and integrity, Buckminster Fuller coined a term for it: tensegrity. In a tensegrity structure, none of the solid elements actually touch each other, but they are separated and supported by the softer tensile elements. The term “biotensegrity” is used to specify the tensegrity structure of the human body.
One band of fascia worthy of special note for yogis is the iliotibial band (see Figure 1.3a). This powerful support runs from the outer hip to the outer edge of the shin, crossing both the hip and knee joints. Two hip muscles attach to it superiorly, the gluteus maximus and the tensor fascia lata, tightening the fascia by pulling it from above. Its inferior (lower) attachment is just below the knee on the lateral (outer) side. The iliotibial band functions to help spread the load of work over the large thigh muscles and to stabilize us as upright two-legged beings. It reduces side-to-side wobbling in our hips when we walk or run, especially with the quick directional changes that happen frequently in sports and dance. When it becomes overly short, the iliotibial band can cause movement restrictions in the hips, lower back or knees, often without localized pain but with cascading effects in these other joints. We stretch the iliotibial band in many standing poses, especially Utthita Trikonasana and hip openers such as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose) preparation or Agni Stambhasana (Fire Log Pose).
Try this now.
- With your hands, feel the texture of the fascia at the outer side of your thighs. Is it different from the texture of the quadriceps muscles at the front of your thighs or the hamstring muscles at the back?
- Perform Utthita Trikonasana and notice the stretch of the iliotibial band on your back leg. Notice how you can increase that stretch by stretching your upper arm horizontally over your ear and isometrically widening your back leg to the side as much as possible. This pulls on the continuous line of fascia down the side of your body.
Several other fascial tissues are worthy of note for yogis. The abdominal aponeurosis (and its central line at the front of the torso, called the linea alba) extends from the lower ribs to the pubic bone, and serves to protect the soft organs and provide attachments for the abdominal muscles (see Figure 1.3b).
The thoracolumbar aponeurosis (serving as a tendon for large back muscles) is located at the back of the waist, and it serves to stabilize the lower trunk (see Figure 1.3c).
The plantar fascia spans the sole of the foot, connecting the heel to the toes and creating a bowstring that helps to support the longitudinal arch of the foot (see Figure 1.3d).
Ellen Saltonstall has been teaching yoga, anatomy, therapeutics and Bodymind Ballwork to improve wellness for everyone since 1985. Her previous titles include Yoga for Arthritis and Yoga for Osteoporosis (with Dr. Loren Fishman) and Kinetic Awareness: Discovering Your Bodymind.
Ellen’s writings have appeared in Yoga Journal, Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation and the International Association of Yoga Therapists’ Journal of Yoga Therapy. Currently she teaches yoga, anatomy, yoga therapeutics and Bodymind Ballwork to students and teachers internationally, inviting them to discover and explore the majesty and mystery of the human form. Please visit her website, ellensaltonstall.com.